The celebration of the Pascha each year give Christians the opportunity to celebrate with their Jewish brothers and sisters what they share in common. Not long ago Pope John Paul II visited the Wailing Wall in the Holy City and placed his prayer in a niche of that wall. In this prayer, addressed to the God of our Fathers, Abraham and his descendants, he pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of the Church for all those Jews who had suffered in any way from the hands of Christians, and he committed the Church to a "genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant". In preparation for this visit the Vatican had issued the Document, Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past. In the section titled Christians and Jews, it outlined how the relationship between these two has been "a tormented one". For over two thousand years there has been much hostility or persecution by Christians towards Jews. It is indeed "a painful historical reality" and "the cause of profound remorse". Christians' attitudes towards the Jews are even more regretful when we examine our Christian background. "Jesus was a descendant of David; that the Virgin Mary and the Apostles belonged to the Jewish people; that the Church draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which has been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles (cf. Rom.11.17-24); that the Jews are our dearly beloved brothers, indeed in a certain sense they are 'our elder brothers.'" (5.4) So we Christians are being asked to love our Jewish brothers and sisters. One of the ways of being able to do this, is to understand their history, particularly being the chosen race of God through whom God has worked out man's salvation.

    When Jews celebrate their Pesach meal, they proclaim that God has saved them, and is saving them. The Old Testament Pesach was the forerunner of the Christian Pascha in a way that the Ten Commandments were a prototype to the Beatitudes. The deliverance from Pharaoh, the passing over the Red Sea and the Passover meal all have their counterpart in the Triduum Liturgy, and in readings for Lent and Holy Week. The Exodus from Egypt appears in the Divine Office on Thursday after Ash Wednesday, and continues after the Fourth Sunday of Lent with passages from Leviticus and Number, whilst from the fifth Sunday until Easter the scripture readings are from Hebrews. Of course the Pascha readings heard by most people are those at the beginning of the Triduum liturgy on Maundy Thursday, and then at the great Paschal Vigil. In the former the congregation hears the detailed instructions given to Moses and Aaron concerning the Passover meal, (Ex. Ch. 12), and with the latter, the description of how the Israelites passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, whilst their enemies in their chariots and their horses drowned when the waters returned (Ch. 14). The Exodus gains more impetus when the Exsultet or Paschal Proclamation is chanted by the deacon. This triumphal song proclaims:

This is our passover feast,
when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night when first you saved our fathers:
led them dry shod through the sea.
This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.

This magnificent lyrical hymn of praise was possibly composed by the great fourth century Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, but the link between the Old Testament Passover story and the death and resurrection of Christ preceded Ambrose. For example, there is a Paschal homily dating from somewhere between 160 and 170 A.D on Pascha, by Melito of Sardis, which shows conclusively that the reading of how to keep the Passover from Ch. 12 of Exodus was a significant feature of the Christians' celebration of Easter. This is how it begins:

    The scripture from the Hebrew Exodus has been read and the words of the mystery have been plainly stated, how the sheep is sacrificed and how the people is saved and how Pharaoh is scourged through the mystery.
Understand, therefore, beloved, how it is new and old, eternal and temporary, perishable and imperishable, mortal and ink, this mystery of the Pascha: old as regards the law, but new as regards the law, but new as regard the model, eternal because of the grace: perishable because of the slaughter of the sheep, imperishable because of the life of the Lord; mortal because of the burial in the earth, immortal because of the rising from the dead.

    What emerges from these early observances of Pesach is that the Old Testament Passover became a model or prophetic image of the freeing from slavery, and of redemption. One of the features of the Exodus is transitus, the passage or the crossing over from one state to another signified by the Red Sea crossing, that is, from slavery to freedom and from bondage to redemption. Similarly the death and Resurrection of Christ form a passage   the cross and also the harrowing of Hell being the equivalent to the Red Sea. Furthermore the Christian life is also marked by a passage from death to life symbolized in the water of baptism. Once baptism became associated with the Paschal liturgy, and as we have now in the Triduum, these three actually form a single unit. In the above quotation from the Paschal homily, there is no mention of the Passover with Baptism. However not long afterwards, towards the end of the second century, Tertullian has baptism as part of the liturgical liturgy for Easter. "The Passover provides the day of most solemnity for baptism, for then was accomplished our Lord's passion, and into it we are baptized." (Tertullian, De Baptismo, ch.9). Origen, a near contemporary of Tertullian, also stressed this transitus, that is, the crossing over from death to life. Both Tertullian and Origen's concept refine Paul's teaching of Christ "our Passover" in 1 Corinthians 5.7, and John 13.1 where our Lord specifically refers to the Feast of the Passover, and also in Paul's letter to the Romans 6.4, "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in life."

    Let us now have a closer look at the Old Testament history central to the Jewish Pesach. The Israelites moved from Canaan into Egypt, initially to buy grain during famine. We all probably know the story of how Joseph, son of Jacob/Israel was sold into slavery by his brothers, and eventually ended up in Egypt as Pharaoh's prime minister. As such he sold grain to his brothers during famine on the condition that their aged father came to Egypt. The Israelites thus settled in Egypt. However under a new pharaoh the Israelites lost their land and were made slaves (Gen.47, Ex. 1). They became hated and feared, and were forced to labour seven days a week. The first chapter of Exodus tells of the laws by which Pharaoh tried to make the Hebrews insignificant, intellectually feeble and numerically weak by trying to kill all the male children. (Hence the hiding of Moses in the bullrushes). They were thus a dispirited and unorganized rabble with no real sense of identity, and above all they were in servitude to a ruthless and idol worshipping Pharaoh. It is under these deplorable conditions that one of them, Moses, who had been miraculously saved at birth and reared at Pharaoh's Court, but a fugitive by committing murder, is called by God to be their leader and who will eventually lead them out of such bondage. Eventually! because Moses found many excuses to try and avoid God's demands. This God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob revealed his sacred name to Moses, I AM THAT I AM and commissioned him as His spokesman to Pharaoh to obtain the release of the Hebrew Children. I am sending you 'unto Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt' (Ex.3:10). However Moses hesitated, claiming he was not eloquent. To this excuse, God reminded Moses that he has a brother who is articulate. However when Pharaoh heard Aaron's plea he reacted with contemptuous anger, 'Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go?' Rather Pharaoh imposed a heavier burden on the Israelite children by not giving them straws to make the required number of bricks. Instead they were forced to collect their own straw for brick building, and their anger was aimed at Moses and Aaron. But God hears the cries of the Hebrews. As a result the God of the Israelite Fathers sent a number of crippling plagues such as locusts and frogs upon the Egyptians but not on the Hebrews Ex. Ch. 7 9). These reached their climax in the death of all the first born of the Egyptians' children and animals on the night that became the Passover night. The Israelites were spared this slaying by observing a sequence of rites involving the slaying of the unblemished male lamb, and then marking the doorposts and lintel of their houses with its blood. On that night too the flesh of the lamb was roasted with bitter herbs and eaten with unleavened bread rather than leavened as the meal was prepared hastily as they had to leave Egypt in a hurry. All was to be consumed by the morning, and if any remained it was to be burnt. Every year afterwards, on the 14th day of Nissan (April) was to be kept as a memorial. 'You shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when the Lord slew the Egyptians and delivered our houses.' (Ex.Ch.12).

    With such retribution, Pharaoh gave Moses, Aaron and the Hebrew children permission to leave. God led them across the wilderness 'by day in a pillar of a cloud ... and by night in a pillar of fire' (Ex. Ch. 13). However Pharaoh's heart hardened and reversed his decision to set the Israelites free, and pursued them with his chariots and horsemen. It seemed that the darkest moment had come for the Hebrew children when they seemed to be trapped between the Red Sea and the forces of Pharaoh. But God had not deserted them for when Moses stretched forth his rod over the sea, the water divided, enabling the Israelites to cross on dry land to the other side in safety. Pharaoh's army pursued, only to be drowned by the returning waters (Ex. 14:5-31).

    Despite this deliverance, the Israelites soon expressed faithlessness and fickleness in the desert. Still God was with them in that pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night, leading them in this strange and harsh land (Ex. 13.21). He provided manna for food and water from the rock for drink to enable them to survive their trek in the wilderness to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. Ch. 16 & 17). At Mt. Sinai they entered into a covenant with God when he announced 'if you will keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for the earth is mine . ... you shall be ... an holy nation' (Ex. 19.5 6). This covenant with God was solemnly celebrated at the foot of Sinai as appropriate sacrifices were offered and blood thrown over the altar, after which Moses read the book of the Covenant to the assembled Hebrews who assented, 'All that the Lord hath said we will do, and be obedient' (Ex. 24.7). The remaining blood was sprinkled over the people by Moses who cried out, 'Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words' (Ex. 24:8). Yet the Israelites continued to be a faithless lot, rebelling against God, so much so, that their entry into the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, was delayed by a whole generation. Even Moses was forbidden to see the Promised Land, which fell to his successor, Joshua, who led the people over the River Jordan in a way clearly intended to recall the crossing of the Red Sea (Deut. 34, Jos. 1). Later on the Jordan crossing became associated with Jesus' baptism, and that of Christians. Origen expressed it:
    Joshua removed from the sons of Israel the 'shame of Egypt,'  Our Joshua  Jesus  in the mystery of baptism, in the exaltation of the cross removes from our hearts the 'shame of Egypt.' 
Prior to Origen, his teacher, Clement of Alexandria, in the very early 3rdC. in his Commentary on Joshua had referred to this crossing by Joshua as an allegory for Christian baptism.
This crossing into Israel over the Jordan under Joshua as a model for interpreting Batpsim is also clearly seen in Aphrahat's Demonstration of the latter part of the 4thC in Syria.
Joshua the son of Nun circumcised the people a second time with knives of stone when he and his people crossed the Jordan. Joshua (Jesus) our redeemer a second time circumcised the peoples who believed in him with the circumcision of the heart, and they were baptized and circumcised with 'the knife which is his word that is sharper than the two-edge sword' (Heb.4.12). Joshua the son of Nun led the people across to the Land of promise; and Joshua our redeemer promised the land of the living to whoever passed through the true Jordan, believed, and circumcised the foreskin of his heart.  Blessed are those whose hearts are circumcised from the foreskin and who are born through water, the second circumcision, for they are inheritors with Abraham. Apraphat, Demonstration, XI.11-2.

    As we reflect on the Hebrews' deliverance we see how a rabble lot became a community and bonded through covenant and worship to the one God.
For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a special people unto himself, above all people who are on the face of the earth.
The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any other people; for you were the fewest of people:
But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut. 7.6 8).

This is the background for the New Testament and for the tradition of the early Church's worship, which relates to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and to the initiation of new members into the Body of Christ and the sacramental life of the church. In it is thus in this context that we understand St. Paul's writing to the Corinthians:

Brethren, I would not have you ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that rock was Christ (ICor. 10:1 4).

And how do we understand the concept of 'covenant', first offered to Noah (Gen.9.9 17), to Abraham (Gen. 15.18) then expounded as we saw in Exodus and later on developed by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Surely it must be seen as the prelude for our Lord's action at the Last Supper when he took the cup and said over it, 'this is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you' (Luke 22:20).

    Another symbolic aspect of the Passover is how God deals with His people. Through Adam, the human predicament is one of servitude in sin, a servitude that leaves men weak, divided and incapable of any initiative as seen in the Hebrew children's predicament in Egypt. Deliverance from this state can only come from God's intervention. So the unblemished lamb that is offered as a paschal sacrifice and consumed at the paschal meal, whose blood is shed to spare the firstborn of God's people from death, points to the pure spotless Lamb in Christ who offers himself as the pure sacrifice to God in his death for the atonement of God's people. God's redeeming intervention is to bind the redeemed into a close unity as the people of God, and to establish a covenant based on God's calling by His grace and love for His people. Hence Paul spoke of 'God has not cast away his people ... for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance' (Rom. 11:2, 29).
Pesach of course means to pass over, but its keeping was probably older than the actual Exodus, as it had an agricultural tradition to celebrate the reaping of the harvest. For instance at Gilgal, the day after the 14th of Nissan, the Israelites 'did eat of the old corn of the land ... unleavened cakes, and parched corn' (Jos.5.11) But its main keeping has always been in association with the deliverance. 'I will sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously: ... The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation" (Ex.1.1,2). For the Jews the Exodus, the Passover, was their identity both as a nation and the chosen people of God. This concept is inherited in the Christian tradition, illustrated in those words of Peter, 'you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people' (l Pet. 2:9). Thus we sing in the Exsultet of the people of Israel as 'our fathers' and celebrate the Exodus as part of our own history and salvation. We can therefore identify with the act of praise that is sung at the Jewish Passover meal as they raise their glasses and sing:

Therefore, let us rejoice
At the wonder of our deliverance 
From bondage to freedom, 
From agony to joy, 
From mourning to festivity, 
From darkness to light, 
From servitude to redemption.
Before God let us ever sing a new song. (from the Haggadah, read at the Passover meal)

    Now let us take a closer look at the Jewish Pesach. It lasts for seven days, but beforehand the home is cleaned immaculately to remove all traces of leavened bread, whilst the day before is the Fast of the Firstborn males to commemorate the sparing of the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt. However the focus of the Pesach, is the meal called Seder. On each plate is roast lamb, symbolic of deliverance, parsley dipped in salt water, symbolic of the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves, haroseth, a sweet paste made from apples, nuts, honey, wine and spice, symbolic of the bricks the Israelites were forced to make, bitter herbs, symbolic for the bitterness of slavery and a roast egg, symbolic of new life. After the ritual of hand washing, the Matzah, that is, the unleavened bread is blessed and broken but eaten later as dessert with the third cup of wine drunk after a blessing over it. At the meal the Hallel psalms are recited (Psalms 113 8), and the events of deliverance are reiterated when the youngest member of the family asks, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' And so in the course of the evening the leader says:

    In every generation, each person should feel as though he himself had gone forth from Egypt, as it is written: 'And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I, myself, went forth from Egypt ...' not only our ancestors alone did the Holy One redeem but us as well, along with them, as it is written:
'And he freed us from Egypt so as to take us and give us the land which he had sworn to our fathers.'
The seder is completed with a wish that the Messiah will come within the next year. Of course during the evening the door is always left open for the return of Elijah, symbol of the messianic hope. The evening closes with various stories and songs.

This most important aspect of the Passover for the Jews was eucharistic, that is a great thanksgiving for deliverance and redemption. It eventually came to include all the great acts of deliverance in their history as lived and or foretold by the prophets. Hence the exile in Babylon is a second Egypt. The promise of return from this exile as prophesied by Jeremiah and Deutero Isaiah were clearly modelled on the Exodus narrative.

Therefore, behold, the days come, says the Lord, that they shall say no more, the Lord lives, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord lives, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they dwell in their own land (Jer. 23:7 8).

Go you forth of Babylon, flee you from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare you, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say you, The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.
And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts; he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out (Isa. 48:20 1).

To day in the state of Israel, modern events such as the holocaust are also recalled when the Passover is celebrated.

    Their thanksgiving was also eschatological, as the Israelites not only looked backwards in their thanksgiving but also forward in prayerful longing and hope for a more final act of liberation. We know from the Gospels that there was always considerable excitement and unrest at the Passover in anticipation of the promised Messiah. At the Seder, even to day this eschatological note is strong, particularly as the meal draws to a close. The Cup of Elijah, which is set in the middle of the table, is filled with wine; the door is opened and the whole company rises, for, according to tradition, Elijah will come to announce and usher in the presence of the Messiah. At the closing proclamation, which brings the formal part of the meal to its conclusion, this is said:

Leader: The Seder Service now concludes:
Its rites oberved in full,
Its purposes revealed.

Group: This privilege we share will ever be renewed 
Until God's plan is known in full.
His highest blessing is sealed.

Leader: Peace!

Group: Peace for us! For everyone!

Leader: For all people, this is our hope: 

Group: Next year in Jerusalem!
Next year, may all be free.

    In the Christian Church to day it is imperative that in its teaching and liturgy the place of the Old Testament pesach is given its full importance in the whole process of redemption. As the Easter Preface announces:
The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ Our Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved his task principally by the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension, whereby 'dying he destroyed our death and rising restored our life.'
Christ died and rose in the spring, fulfilling the hope of the Jewish Passover feast which directly and primarily commemorated the Exodus from Egypt. But behind the Passover stood ancient spring rituals, the sacrifice of the spring lamb to ensure the fertility of the flock and the offering of the first sheaf of corn . ... these are with us still, hiding in the shadows as we celebrate Easter night with the new fire and the water, the bread and the wine. Maria Boulding, Marked for Life: Prayer in the Easter Christ (London, 1979), pp. 72 3.

    When we focus on our own Pascha, we shall notice that so much of the Jewish Pesach appears in ours. It is one of the times of the year when Jews and Christians are closely and specially linked.
Thus both Jews and Christians can claim at the respective Passovers:
The Lord is my strength and song. And he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare for him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him. 
Who is like unto you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praise, doing wonders? 
You in your mercy has led forth the people whom you have redeemed: you have guided them in your strength unto your holy habitation (Exodus 15.2,11,13).

This day shall be unto you for a memorial; and you 
shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your 
generations; you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance 
for ever.
                                           Exodus 12.14

Marianne Dorman
Return to Index

To 3. The Christian's Passover.